Put the Sci in your Fi – #1 – Button, button, who’s got the button?

Hey guys! In keeping with one of my New Year’s resolutions, I’m starting up a new section on my blog: Put the Sci in your Fi.

My hope and intent with this blog thread is to create a fun, informal resource for non-scientists who want to write Sci-Fi novels. Those of you who are already well immersed in SF writing will know that you must do your homework, and sometimes there’s a great deal of homework to be done. But sometimes, it’s hard to know what to look for when you’re unfamiliar with the field, especially if you’re looking for something specific.

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Always researching…

During the course of writing SF, I’ve been asked a good number of questions that I did my best to explain. There is a certain level of creativity that we can inject into our works, of course. Otherwise, we might as well just write textbooks, and that’s not what I would call fun. But I kind of like to think of SF writing as a “loosely guided creativity,” where the book’s SF universe is bound by natural and physical forces, and if the author decides to break those rules, there needs to be a plausible scientific reason why. (This goes for books in any genre, really, not just SF, in that books should adhere to the rules and systems established for that world. Anyway.)

Some credentials and disclaimers: I do have a science background, with B.S. degrees in Immunology/Infectious diseases, and Biotechnology. And also a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Pathology. I’ve trained to be a clinical lab technician, and once upon a time I was a certified EMT. Whatever answers I provide in these entries will be the result of much researching or personal experience, and will also provide links to articles where applicable. That being said, I am only one source, so if you do find information here that you like, please also check it for yourself. I could be wrong or looking at outdated information. Hopefully that won’t be the case, but I would definitely encourage everyone to fact-check everything no matter what it is.

Alrighty, introduction done!

For this first post, I’ll address a question that I was asked by a fellow Sci-Fi author: If my character is genetically engineered and grown in a capsule, would they have a bellybutton?

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Did you know the Earth also has a “bellybutton”? Described in Chan’s 2008 paper, this pit is called the “Cosmic Navel” and it’s in Utah.

The reason she asked this rather unusual question was because there was a scene in which her character would be wearing a bathing suit, and she wanted to know if her character should be self-conscious about a potential difference.

I believe the short and simple answer is that luckily for the character, there’d be no need to be self-conscious because yes, she would have a bellybutton.

Why?

We all know bellybuttons are the result of removing the umbilical cord after birth. In the natural course of things, the umbilical cord serves as the connection between the fetus and the mother’s placenta. But if your character is grown from a capsule instead of a womb, how could they have an umbilical cord?

The simple(ish) answer is because the umbilical cord forms from the embryonic cells of the fetus in the womb, developing from the yolk sac and allantois—not from the mother’s own cells. The fetus should be able to form an umbilical cord, and thus, will form a bellybutton.

If you as an SF author wanted to stop here, I believe this would be plausible enough logic to say that yes, capsule-born babies would have normal bellybuttons.

However, if you wanted to consider additional factors that may play into the design of your ‘exowomb’, the not-so-simple answer involves potential complications from the fact that this baby is grown in a rather unnatural setting outside the mother—capsule vs womb, mystery science juice vs amniotic fluid, some kind of mechanical nutrient/waste exchange system vs placenta.

The following may be out of the scope of the usual SF affair, but as the author, it may be useful to have a good grasp on how, hypothetically, your system would work. These factors may be worth considering when thinking about how your GE babies can develop (and what conditions, if any, may arise from growing in an unnatural setting like this.)

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Artificial wombs are not a new concept in science fiction. But, a heavy consideration is the fact that to date, no artificial wombs have successfully supported a growing mammalian fetus from the implantation stage—although in a Nature Communications paper from 2017, Partridge, et al discuss the development of an extra-uterine system to support premature lambs through the end of their gestation period. The authors used a low resistance, pumpless oxygenator circuit in conjunction with a closed amniotic fluid circuit. In this system, however, the lambs had been developing in the mother’s uterus naturally before being transferred to the system for the final stages of development. In other words, the authors here did not start “from scratch” with the lambs.

In order to start “from scratch” with an embryo that does not already have a formed placenta, you may need to consider an artificial placenta interface to provide nutrient/waste exchange for your fictional GE kiddo (not to mention a range of hormonal changes to stimulate embryonic/fetal placental development in the first place…). The bad news is that in the last 50 years, artificial placentas have only seen limited success—many failures and fetal deaths could be attributed to circulatory volume overload/imbalance leading to hemorrhage, sepsis, or umbilical vascular spasms (Westin, 1958; Callaghan, 1963; Sakata, 1998)

The good news is ultimately, you’re the god of your world, and the fact that researchers have been pursuing this concept for the past few decades could mean that there is merit to this idea—and would not be completely implausible for you to extrapolate and give your capsule tank a functional placental stand-in based on these systems.

If you wanted to really beef up your exowomb system, you could also consider using stem cells in your creation. In normal pregnancy, the embryo implants in the endometrial lining, a critical element that may be missing in your artificial uterus.

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Minature “womb lining” grown. Image credit: Centre for Trophoblast Research

Fortunately, Turco, et al published a paper in 2017 regarding their findings that a mini organoid endometrium could respond to hormonal signals and develop characteristics of early pregnancy. The purpose of the research was to develop a means to study events during implantation, as well as provide an in vitro model for diseases like endometriosis. However, as an author, you could potentially extrapolate upon this finding and incorporate stem cells into your system as a means for in vitro embryonic attachment (which has actually been done in a study on human embryos by Shabazi, 2016 and Deglincerti, 2016, to study the early events of implantation; similar studies have been performed on mouse embryos by Bedzhov, 2014). This process and these breakthroughs are also covered in an article from Rockefeller University.

With all of the above taken together, it may be plausible to expand today’s research into an SF author’s futuristic world to allow you to grow your GE kiddo from start to finish in the tank. With an umbilical cord and bellybutton.

belly-button

Now, we could also examine the flip side—what if you don’t want your character to have a bellybutton? We’ve already answered that they might be able to form one, but there are actually conditions that may prevent the formation of a bellybutton as well.

One such condition is called gastroschisis, a birth defect where the baby’s intestines protrudes from an abdominal hole at or near the belly button. This defect requires surgical intervention after the baby is born, and may result in the belly button being sewn or stretched over the hole. This may create a slight indentation or a crinkly scar, rather than a discernible belly button. In these cases, the belly button is technically there, but may not be obvious.

Another condition is called omphalocele, in which the baby is truly born with no belly button. In normal development, the umbilical cord attaches to the fetus internally, and during the course of pregnancy, the fetus’ abdominal muscles should grow together to seal off the intestines. In omphalocele, this process doesn’t occur as it should, and may result in abdominal organs (in addition to intestines) protruding from the hole in the peritoneal sac where the belly button should have formed. Surgical intervention is also required in these cases.

I think that brings us to the end of this topic. Hopefully you found this post useful (or at least interesting). If you have any thoughts or would like to see any other topics addressed, please leave them as a comment below this article. Thank you for reading!

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Til next time!
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7 thoughts on “Put the Sci in your Fi – #1 – Button, button, who’s got the button?

Add yours

  1. I like how you can take the smallest thing, and make a whole world stem from it, following logic to stand you in good stead!

      1. I do love the rabbit hole of research! I’m a very amateur quantum physics enthusiast, actually. I don’t write sci-fi (though I did base a magic system off of quantum physics and photon entanglement), but I do so very much enjoy the logic and focus sci-fi writers have!

      2. Aw yay! That’s awesome, actually. I’ve never studied physics much, so that entire field is a mystery to me. I am hoping one day to build this blog series up enough to invite guests to post about topics outside the life-sciences though. Quantum entanglement would be fascinating!

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